Where should Todd Gurley rank among UGA running backs?

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Should Todd Gurley rank second only to Herschel Walker? (
Should Todd Gurley rank second only to Herschel Walker? (Ted Mayer / UGA)

Should Todd Gurley rank second only to Herschel Walker? (Ted Mayer / UGA)

Todd Gurley was only an observer at Wednesday’s Pro Day at UGA because he’s still rehabbing from his ACL reconstructive surgery, but that isn’t expected to keep him from going high in the NFL draft, probably in the first round if medical tests in April turn out satisfactorily.

After all, as Mark Richt recently said of his former star tailback, “He’s a beast. … If someone needs a great back, he’d be my first pick, no doubt.”

And no wonder, if you look at Gurley’s numbers while a Georgia Bulldog. In 30 games, he had 510 carries for 3,285 yards, or an average of 6.44 yards per carry, scoring 36 touchdowns. He also had 65 receptions for 615 yards and five TD’s. In career yards, Gurley ranks ahead of Garrison Hearst (3,232) and second only to Herschel Walker’s 5,259.

What sort of NFL career Gurley ends up having remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, what we can try to assess is Gurley’s place in UGA football lore. Where should he rank among the Dawgs’ many great running backs?

Before the suspension and injury this past season, I was firmly convinced Gurley was on track to be second only to Herschel. In terms of talent, I still think he clearly was second only to Herschel.

But, having missed large chunks of two of his three UGA seasons, can he really be ranked above, say, Hearst and Knowshon Moreno? And what about Rodney Hampton, Lars Tate or Tim Worley?

There's no argument about Georgia's greatest back ever. (UGA)

There’s no argument about Georgia’s greatest back ever. (UGA)

I put the question of where Gurley should rank among all-time UGA backs to a sampling of fans, ranging from 20-somethings to Gen-Xers to boomers.

Dan agreed with most of the fans that, before his suspension and injury, Gurley ranked only behind Herschel, but now thinks he “falls behind Hearst, Tate and Hampton” and sees him tied for fifth best with Moreno.

Johnny went farther back, ranking Georgia backs like this: Walker, Charley Trippi*, Hearst, Moreno “and then the rest.”

(*Most of us never saw Trippi or Frankie Sinkwich in action, and those two 1940s superstars didn’t play against the size players that today’s backs do. So it’s hard to say how they’d rank against more recent backs. You almost have to limit the discussion to the “modern” era, starting in 1964. Or maybe just A.H. — After Herschel.)

That’s because most fans, like Owen, place Herschel in a category by himself. “I had the good fortune to attend the 1981 game at Ole Miss where Herschel rushed for 265 yards,” Owen said, “and I’ve never seen a more dominant performance by a running back.”

Should Gurley rank above Knowshon Moreno? (UGA)

Should Gurley rank above Knowshon Moreno? (UGA)

From a talent and performance standpoint, he said, “I would compare Gurley favorably to Knowshon Moreno among modern RBs. TG had one great season (2012) and does have the second most career yards after #34. However, mostly due to injuries, Gurley did not complete a body or work sufficient to place him near the top of my list.

“For overall ability AND body of work, I would definitely rank Hearst, Moreno (in only 2 seasons) and probably Hampton ahead of Gurley. …. If Gurley had stayed healthy, he would probably rank as high as 2nd (on my subjective list) and we probably would have won some more key games; but, unfortunately, he didn’t.”

Mike ranked UGA running backs like this: Walker, Hearst, Gurley, Moreno, Hampton, Worley and Tate, adding that he thinks Gurley “would have been second to Herschel had this [past] season not gone the way it did; Knowshon could have been even more special, too, if not for his redshirt year and leaving early. Knowshon was spectacular.”

Kevin also thought that Gurley “was moving to No. 2, but the suspension hurt, for sure, and the injuries the past two years really took away from his career. I think Hearst is still No. 2, but it’s always a good debate.”

A lot of fans rank Garrison Hearst second to Walker. (AJC file)

A lot of fans rank Garrison Hearst second to Walker. (AJC file)

It’s “a good question, a tough question,” agreed Scott. “I think, based on pure talent, he clearly was second only to Herschel. As great as the other guys you mentioned were, only Gurley and Herschel made you hold your breath in anticipation whenever the ball was handed to them, because you knew a 70-yard TD was possible on any given play. Also, he could catch and wasn’t afraid to block, plus was a great teammate by almost all accounts (suspension issue aside).”

However, more problematic to Scott than the suspension was Gurley’s “proneness to injury. He simply couldn’t stay healthy for long stretches, certainly compared to Hearst and Hampton (and Tate, too, though I don’t think Lars belongs in the pantheon you mentioned. He was a talented, dependable back, but not a game-changer like the other guys).”

For Scott, using a “draft” scenario it comes down to who would you want playing tailback if you had to win  a single game? Assuming Herschel is No. 1 for all categories, Scott said he’d take Gurley at No. 2 for a single-game or one-play situation. “For a whole season? I’d lean toward Garrison. And to sign as a recruit, in hopes he’d deliver the three best years possible? Rodney or Garrison.”

Where does Musa Smith rank in the pantheon of UGA running backs? (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Where does Musa Smith rank in the pantheon of UGA running backs? (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

If you disregard Gurley’s injuries but keep the 4-game suspension, Scott said, “to me he’d clearly be second only to Herschel. But he missed a lot of key games, and the reality is he never led us to an SEC title — which, granted, is a blemish on (too) many great UGA players in the past 20 years … though he came awfully close his freshman year.”

On the other hand, Scott noted, “Musa Smith helped us win an SEC title, but, while a big-time back, he wasn’t as good as non-titleists Hearst, Hampton, Moreno and Gurley.”

Joel, meanwhile, puts Gurley on a par with Hampton, Tate and Robert Edwards but thinks he “missed too much time with injuries and the suspension” to with Hearst and Moreno right behind Herschel.

Still, Joel said, when Gurley was on the field “he was second only to Herschel and not by much. Due to his incredible performance when playing I’d probably rank him No. 3” overall.

Robert Edwards was another great Bulldogs tailback. (Associated Press)

Robert Edwards was another great Bulldogs tailback. (Associated Press)

My son Bill, however, doesn’t think Gurley should be branded as “injury prone.”

“He was hurt for the last part of 2013 but came as close to single-handedly winning the Tech game as a player in football can. Playing running back is brutal. Most NFL teams use platoons now because it’s so hard to stay healthy. Sometimes injuries are just luck and a bad twist and I don’t think anything about him made him inherently more injured than other backs.”

That’s a good point. Even when he was less than 100 percent, what Gurley was able to do was pretty amazing, that 2013 Tech game in particular.

As for the winning of an SEC title being a factor in the discussion, that’s also problematic. Georgia won some conference championships with running backs who aren’t near the talent Gurley or Moreno were.

Rodney Hampton has his supporters in this discussion, too. (AJC file)

Rodney Hampton has his supporters in this discussion, too. (AJC file)

Back to the original question: My son said he definitely would rank Gurley second only to Herschel. And he makes a pretty good case for that ranking:

“He is second in career yards and second only to Herschel in talent. Hearst, Tate, Moreno and Hampton didn’t win any titles and didn’t run for more yards, so I’m not sure how they get ranked ahead. Hearst and Moreno technically played for teams that shared division titles, but those teams lost the key tiebreakers and didn’t play for the conference title. … Moreno got swallowed up by Alabama and Florida in ’08, which just was not possible with Gurley. And Gurley did help win the 2012 division title, and nearly a conference championship.”

Also, Bill noted, Gurley “did all of that while missing almost a season’s worth of games to injury and suspension over 2013 and 2014, and only being a three-year player. So, in essentially two seasons worth of work, he is UGA’s second-leading rusher of all time.”

Nick Chubb could wind up surpassing Gurley at UGA. (John Kelley / UGA)

Nick Chubb could wind up surpassing Gurley at UGA. (John Kelley / UGA)

The more interesting debate, my son added, “will be Gurley vs. Nick Chubb after the 2016 season, when we see what Chubb did over his three seasons. Plus, Chubb wasn’t even the starter for the first half of his freshman year.”

It should be fun for Bulldogs fans seeing how that competition plays out!

So, now it’s your turn: Where do you think Gurley ranks all-time among UGA running backs?

 

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Junkyard Blawg mugBill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.


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